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The Mother Tongue

There are at least 7,102 known languages still spoken in the world today. Many of these languages are spoken only by a very small number of people and may become extinct soon. We wonder: How many languages are spoken as a mother tongue by at least 50 million people?

A. More than 800
B. More than 400
C. More than 100
D. More than 20

A. More than 800 … is not correct.

According to UNESCO, the UN’s cultural heritage agency, the highest number of languages spoken as a first language in a single country today is 839.

This astonishing record is held by the large mountainous island nation of Papua New Guinea. This is all the more remarkable as Papua New Guinea, located near Australia and next to Indonesia, has a population of only 7 million.

The nation with the second-highest level of language diversity in the world is neighboring Indonesia. The Indonesian population of 264 million speaks some 707 languages, well over 100 fewer than Papua New Guinea.

However, sizable communities speak many of Indonesia’s languages. The largest, Javanese, is natively spoken by 84.3 million people. In contrast, many of Papua New Guinea’s languages are spoken only by a very limited number of people.

The country with the third-highest level of language diversity is Nigeria with 526 languages, including most prominently Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba.

B. More than 400 … is not correct.

In the United States, a total of 422 languages is spoken. That puts the country into fifth place globally in terms of language diversity.

That diversity is primarily a reflection of the country’s status as a melting pot for families of immigrants from every nation on earth as well as many indigenous American nations.

English and Spanish speakers dominate for U.S. mother tongues, but many other European and Asian languages are spoken in U.S. homes, too.

In India, which is known for its many languages, at least 454 different languages are spoken as a mother tongue. It ranks fourth globally. Unlike China, the other billion-person country, India remains a union of relatively decentralized states with their own unique identities.

Of India’s 1.3 billion population, only 260 million speak Hindi as a first language, although an additional 52 million Indians speak Urdu, which is mutually intelligible but uses a different writing script. The second largest mother tongue among Indians is Bengali (83 million native speakers in India). The third largest language in India, Telugu, is spoken by 74 million, while Marathi, the fourth largest, is spoken by 72 million.

C. More than 100 … is not correct.

There are 110 countries where English is spoken natively, officially or widely as a second language. No other language is spoken as widely across countries.

Much of English’s internationality is due historically to the reach of the British Empire around the globe, as well as the dominance of the United States and United Kingdom in world economic and also cultural affairs over the past two centuries.

The largest native-speaker population of English lives in the United States (225 million speakers of English as a first language). They are followed by the United Kingdom (55.6 million), Canada (19.4 million) and Australia (15.6 million). Other key countries are South Africa, Ireland, New Zealand and Singapore.

The next most widely spoken language in terms of country presence is Arabic, which is spoken in 60 countries. There are 242 million native Arabic speakers worldwide, most of them in North Africa and the Middle East.

The next most widely spoken languages by country presence are French (51 countries), Chinese (33 countries) and Spanish (31 countries).

D. More than 20 … is correct.

Twenty-three languages are spoken as a first language by at least 50 million people each.

The largest is the “macrolanguage” of Chinese – spoken natively by 1.2 billion people across Asia. Chinese is a tonal language, where pronunciation changes the meaning of the word. Thus, regional dialects are essentially their own sub-language.

Within Chinese, there are 848 million native Mandarin dialect speakers (the official language of mainland China and Taiwan), 77 million Wu speakers (centered on Shanghai), 62 million Cantonese speakers (Hong Kong, Macau, Guangzhou and most ethnically Chinese populations in Southeast Asia) and many smaller dialects.

Apart from mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, the largest population of native Chinese speakers is found in Malaysia (5 million).

While Chinese dominates among the most commonly spoken first languages in the world, there are 22 others with at least 50 million native speakers. The next largest is Spanish (399 million), which – like English – in the former colonies has long since eclipsed the number of speakers in the motherland.

Mexico has 103 million native Spanish speakers, for example, compared to Spain’s 38 million. Even the United States (including territories) has 38 million native Spanish speakers.

Third-ranked English has 335 million native speakers globally, Hindi has 260 million, Arabic has 242 million, Portuguese has 203 million, Bengali has 189 million, Russian has 166 million and Japanese has 128 million.

The other fourteen languages with at least 50 million native speakers are Lahnda (89 million), Javanese (84 million), German (78 million), Korean (77 million), French (76 million), Telugu (74 million), Marathi (72 million), Turkish (71 million), Tamil (69 million), Vietnamese (68 million), Urdu (64 million), Italian (64 million), Malay (61 million) and Persian (57 million).

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